WHEN MISSOURI FOOTBALL PLAYER Michael Sam revealed he was gay, it was a landmark moment not just for professional sports but also for the power of social media.
Within seconds of Sam’s New York Times story and interview on ESPN, we saw a flood of support from players and coaches. We saw quotes of concern and NFL stars having debates via blogs and Twitter. This is an age of instant gratification and condemnation, where wisdom and ignorance do battle in plain sight.
Sam understood this power. How do we know? He didn’t have a Twitter channel until just before the interview. The same goes for his Facebook page, which as of this writing had more than 43,000 “likes” since it started on Feb. 9. His Twitter channel, also launched Feb. 9, already has 85,000 followers.
Sam wanted to “own” his story, something he couldn’t do without social media. The New York Times and ESPN aren’t enough anymore – that’s just a start. No matter how vitriolic or ugly the conversation gets as Sam heads into the NFL draft and likely becomes the league’s first openly gay player, he will always own his story because he has given himself a voice with which he can more easily, powerfully and authentically engage.
And then there is Richie Incognito, the Miami Dolphins linebacker with a history of bad behavior who allegedly bullied a fellow teammate, Jonathan Martin, as well as others. An independent investigation documented Incognito’s bullying, including a series of damning text messages.
But just as disturbing were a series of tweets from Incognito a couple days before the report was released. “Dear Jon Martin…the truth is going to bury you and your camp,” read one entry. After the report was made public, Incognito lashed out at the investigator and the media, claiming, “stop the bullying…unlike every major news/media outlet in the world.”
Incognito since has suspended his Twitter account. Whereas Sam sees social media as way to connect with others and accept both the good and the bad in society, Incognito wanted to use social media as a weapon, as a way to bully the world and make everyone fall in line.
Sam is about engagement; Incognito is about enragement. Social media makes room for both, but only one path has a future.
Social media has made it easier for people like Sam to break barriers. And it has made it easier to see people like Incognito for who they truly are.
An openly gay man is going to play professional football. A serial miscreant is going to find it nearly impossible to play football again.
God bless America — and social media.